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Concourse 2

Cleft sentences

avocado

A cleft sentence is a complex sentence ... that has a meaning that could be expressed by a simple sentence.
wikipedia.org (n.d)


function

What do cleft sentences do?

Clefts function to give prominence to a particular part of a clause.  They do this by dividing the clause into two parts (hence the name) and assigning a verb to each noun phrase.  This is a way, in English, of marking, i.e., distinguishing a proposition.  For more on markedness in English, see the guide (linked below).
We can, for example, take the simple sentence:
Mary took her mother to a restaurant last night
and emphasise whichever part of the sentence we feel is important by making cleft sentences, like this:

emphasising the subject
It was Mary who took her mother to a restaurant last night
emphasising the object
It was her mother that Mary took to the restaurant last night
emphasising the adverbial of time
It was last night that Mary took her mother to a restaurant
emphasising the adverbial of place
It was to a restaurant that Mary took her mother last night

All four sentences above are examples of what is called, for a fairly obvious reason, an it-cleft.  They all begin with a dummy, or empty, it pronoun and use the verb be to make the clause.

If you try saying those sentences aloud, you will notice that the stress falls on the emphasised item quite naturally: Mary, mother, last night, to a restaurant, respectively.
Part of the usefulness of cleft sentences is that they allow us to emphasise a particular element in the sentences in writing as well as in speech.

Cleft sentences proper, like these, have two important restrictions:

  • They do not allow us to emphasise the verb so we cannot have:
        *It was took that Mary her mother to the restaurant did last night
    To emphasise the verb, we have to resort to a pseudo-cleft with a wh-word and make, for example:
        What Mary did was take her mother to a restaurant last night.
  • They do not (usually) allow us to emphasise the complement of a copular verb so we don't normally find sentences such as:
        *It was an idiot that he appeared
        *It's Prime Minister that she became
        *It's foolish that he was
    Again, to emphasise the verb, we have to resort to a pseudo-cleft with a wh-word and make, for example, the questionable and somewhat clumsy:
        ?What he appeared was an idiot
        ?What she became was Prime Minister
        ?What he was was foolish

There are a number of ways to make cleft sentences in order to focus on a particular item.  Seven, in fact.


four

4 main types of clefts

There are four sorts to consider first.

It-cleft
These are exemplified above and work like this:
    She enjoyed the hotel most
It was the hotel she enjoyed most
It is possible, as we saw above, to emphasise various parts of sentences with It-clefts.
It is also possible, but slightly rarer, to use that or those instead of it as in, e.g.:
    She enjoyed that hotel most That was the hotel she enjoyed most
Wh-cleft
These are sometimes referred to as pseudo-cleft sentences.  They allow the emphasis to fall on the verb phrase and it-clefts, as we saw, do not permit that usually.
    She enjoyed the hotel most
What she enjoyed most was the hotel
We can use other wh-words (who, where, when) to make these so it is possible to have, e.g.,
    She liked the clowns most Who she liked most were the clowns
    She enjoyed going to the beach Where she enjoyed going most was to the beach
    She enjoyed taking a holiday in winter most When she enjoyed taking a holiday most was in winter
Reversed Wh-cleft
The clue is in the name.  To make a sentence like this we reverse the position of the wh-word and the object of the verb.
    She enjoyed the hotel most
The hotel was what she enjoyed most
As we saw above, we can use other wh-words (who, where, when) to make these sorts of clefts:
    She liked the clowns most
The clowns were who she liked most
    She enjoyed going to the beach The beach is where she enjoyed going most
    She enjoyed taking a holiday in winter most In winter was when she enjoyed taking a holiday most
All-cleft
These are quite simple and exclude all other possibilities connected to the verb.
    She enjoyed the hotel
All she enjoyed was the hotel
write

Task 1: Look carefully at the examples above and see if you can make the four main types of cleft sentences from this example:
Example: I'm trying to help the poor man
Click when you have done that.